Last spring, doctors’ offices across the country were eerily quiet. Almost overnight, patients stopped coming in as COVID-19, and the fear that the novel coronavirus begat, spread through communities across the country.
Healthcare providers quickly adapted. “We were able to pivot to using telemedicine as another mode in terms of connecting with patients,” recalls Thomas Caprio, M.D., a professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
In-person visits didn’t stop altogether, of course, but they dropped precipitously while telehealth visits rose. In Q1 2020, telehealth appointments increased by 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last week of March alone, they were up 154% compared to the same period a year earlier.
As the weather warmed and cases declined, the telehealth spike deflated somewhat; the number of virtual appointments declined while in-person visits ticked upward. But with the arrival of colder weather and a second COVID wave, telehealth surged anew.
Despite the unprecedented number of confirmed cases in the U.S., more people are opting for in-person visits compared to the spring, when less was known about transmission. With widespread vaccination distribution in sight, the question becomes: What’s the long-term state of the telehealth union? Is it where its boosters or skeptics believe it to be, or somewhere in between?
“Our prediction is that the market has fundamentally changed,” says Peter Alperin, M.D., an internal medicine doctor in San Francisco and VP of product at Doximity, a social network for physicians.
According to Doximity, before COVID-19 less than 10% of doctor appointments were virtual. In its 2020 State of Telemedicine Report, the company predicted that telehealth appointments will account for 20% of all medical visits in 2020, representing $29.3 billion of medical services. Doximity projects that figure to increase to a whopping $106 billion by 2023.
Caprio’s personal experience broadly aligns with this. While telehealth usage remains elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels, during the summer and into the fall most of his patients wanted to come see him in-person. His wife, a nurse practitioner, has noticed a similar trend among her patients. Overall, telehealth has proved itself to be, if not a game changer, then “another tool in our toolkit,” Caprio says.
With the long-term impact of telehealth still very much open to debate, marketers in and around the field are navigating a new landscape. For some, including brands firmly in the telehealth space, the moment presents a golden opportunity.
In September, SmileDirectClub, which sells teeth-aligners online, partnered with Meredith’s Foundry 360 content studio to launch Telehealth Explained, a mostly unbranded platform that provides information on telehealth offerings. The aim was to “explain to people what is available and normalize it,” says SmileDirectClub CMO John Sheldon. “We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t someone just shoving a product down their throat. We worked hard to be pretty subtle about our brand in that mix.”
The transition created different types of challenges for others. Point-of-care marketers and networks, which traditionally relied on in-person office visits, came up with a variety of telehealth offerings. For example, Health Monitor Network sent condition-specific educational material directly to patients, while InStep Health put QR codes on in-office material so people could pull up relevant educational and promotional information on their phones.
Mesmerize took a slower approach. Currently, the company is experimenting with virtual telehealth offerings, including banner ads and targeted messaging that plays before virtual visits. It’s not selling them to clients yet, in large part because the telehealth market is so…